Universe in a Box
Space Combat, ships, weapons, and tactics..
A range of sizes and functions, from fighter craft, to huge 'ship of the
line' battlewagons several miles long have been represented in sci-fi future
war scenarios. In all cases they are leaning very heavily on earthly
examples. In some cases, they are jumping up and down on the corpse of
established laws of physics as they operate in a zero-g and airless
For most computer games with less than unlimited cpu and graphics drawing
power, smaller is better. Current real world spacecraft are pared down to
the minimum weight and size needed to do the job. The gaming example I am
going to refer to first would be classic Elite. Smaller quicker ships done a
simple wireframe made a lot of sense for an 8-bit computer. They also made
sense in a fast and loose universe, where there was not a lot of law and
order, and too many eager scumbags wanting to grab your cargo. The default
Cobra mk3 was a handy all-purpose model, very adaptable to being upgraded,
but the player was unable to trade up to something else. The volatility of
the situation meant that evolution had kept your potential enemies down to
something more or less equal to you as well.
The options expanded with Frontier (Elite 2), solid 3-D was possible on the
16/32 bit generation, and the scope of the game was widened considerably as
well. In Frontier, you saw a much greater variation of ship types and
capabilities. There was provision for small light fighter craft, through to
some respectably hefty traders, with the Cobra Mk3's stuck firmly in the
middle. There still wasn't an option for taking the helm of a very large
ship, although there were some of these around for cosmetic reasons ;-)
Frontier also saw a lot more dissimilar combat, between heavily shielded
ships with multi megawatt lasers, versus a poor little fighter, with no
shielding, and something stuck on the front that was better used to light up
Xmas trees in a decorative way! The outcome was quick and predictable to say
Other computer games, such as 3D Crown of Creation, Zero 5 et al, all assume
a fighter craft, one lone hero against the alien hordes. This follows on
from time-worn conventions in two-dimensional computer gaming. In these
cases, the better games do include some sort of upgrade path. To see
anything different, you have to go to the PeeCee, which isn't my area of
expertise at all, for anything where you take control of larger ships?
So we're trying to go beyond the confines of what has been described thus
far, what could we use? Fighters, yes, and I might also suggest that
fighters can be carried on larger ships, ready for use when needed. These
would be totally optimised to be very fast and manouverable, and heavily
armed for the size, but little protection, no hyperspace, and possibly time-
limited life support. Alternatively, ship-launched remotely controlled
drones, or A.I. controlled units could be carried instead. Drone ships
without pilots could have dual role as antiship missiles in extremis.
Cobra-sized ships, small to medium general purpose vessels. The backbone of
any decent game. These would have interstellar range, but limited range.
They would be similar to fast missile/torpedo boats or corvettes in current
naval terms. Suggest different mixes of armament/speed/protection according
to whether they are aggressive or defensive role. They would have good
agility/manouverability compared with larger ships, reasonably able to keep
in touch with fighters. These will be the smallest class of self-supporting
ships if playing in an individual role.
Destroyers, larger than Cobra, but not overwhelmingly so. Matching closely
to current destroyer definition in contemporary navies. Would favour good
offensive armament and high speed over protection. Would be handled
aggressively as main attack weapon in any significant fleet style action.
Fewer in number ingame than Cobra/fighter types, but more numerous than
Raiders, these fall outside the regular pattern of warship classification.
Bigger than fighters and cobra's, in fact the definition of size, speed and
firepower is vague in the extreme. Most commonly, these are converted
merchant ships, to take heavy armaments, shielding etc, as far as their
structure can accomodate. They are usually pirate captured vessels, adapted
from their original role. Capabilities will vary widely, but some will be
Dreadnought, generic catch-all for anything bigger than a destroyer. Can
mount the heaviest weapon types, would trade off on speed and protection
according to whether they are faster (Battlecruiser type), or slower
(Battleship). In all cases, they would be protected at a far more generous
level than the smaller ships, and would be a difficult target to take down.
Carrier, a larger ship type, corresponds to Earth-type Aircraft carrier.
Would be able to launch fighters/drone ships, ideally en masse, as AI
controlled swarm! This gives rise to Carrier Command style tactics of being
able to launch airstrikes! "Go to point x, engage any enemy you find
there.." Alternatively, these can be used to enhance any defence against
enemy small craft and fighters. The carrier itself, based on historical
experience, would be a faster ship, but with not so great protection. They
usually didn't travel alone, and had an escort of smaller ships. If
something gets close enough to kill a carrier directly without serious
efforts being made to stop them, then you are doing something badly wrong!
Other ships, merchantile etc.. These can run the full range of size, from
Cobra mk3 type, which has a maximum load capacity equivalent to a heavy
goods vehicle, to something two miles long and towing a comet to provide
water for a dry planet!? There may also be a place for pure passenger
carriers, from airliner size, to something a lot more like an ocean liner.
(And who can come up with the nicest looking ship design there?) There could
also be scope for specialist vessels, such as asteroid miners, and we
mustn't forget the good old space station. (Double spinning doughnut
A quick word on escape capsules...
The original Elite featured escape capsules as an optional extra. In other
words, if you didn't have the money, then tough! But life got a lot easier
and longer with one of these installed. Even when fighting to the last laser
blast and drop of energy in the worst armpit of an anarchy system, the
escape capsule would take you safely out of harms way when it was used. It
even provided you with a replacement ship. Now that is civilised...
My own feelings on escape capsules are, that in reality, you could just as
likely end up captured and taken into slavery, or have your capsule riddled
with laser fire from the scumbag behind you, who felt like a little extra
target practice. On a more practical level, Escape capsules would only be
useful where there is a planetary system present, and one with some kind of
human/intelligent life in it, or where there is a fleet scenario, a rescue
ship in the area. Eject in deep space away from a solar system, and you will
sit there twiddling your thumbs until the air runs out, ridiculously far off
the shipping lanes to get rescued. Any passers-by will be passing by in
Hyperspace, and quite oblivious to your plight!
Thinking about it a bit more, I kind of prefer the original model!
A digression on damage!
Hands up those of you who find it believable that an opponent is down to 3%
efficiency, and still spitting fire and destruction at you, as if he was
still running at a spritely 97%!? - What, none of you? The example above I
seem to recall from some early Star Trek game on the ST. There are better
ways to tackle this tricky issue, and it might be useful to consider some
gaming and real world examples..
As always, our friends who made Elite had a good interpretation. In the
constrained game engine, they avoided certain categories of damage, such as
major structural or engine damage, short of outright destruction. They were
able to sacrifice most other ancilliary items of equipment under attack. So
for example, you could incur the loss of a docking computer. This would be a
major loss both to the ship efficiency, and of course financially, in a
universe where everything has to be paid for. Frontier refined things a bit,
so you could lose the use of your warp engines. A major embarrassment if you
are in an inhabited but lower tech level system, and are unable to get the
parts when you make port. Or an end to the game at that point, if you are
marooned in an uninhabited solar system!?
There was no attempt to tie in damage caused to a specific area of the ship
being hit. It would not matter with the small sizes of the ships concerned
in Elite. However, if there is going to be a game engine that caters for
larger sized craft, then that becomes an area worthy of further exploration.
The vital areas of a ship can be considered thus:-
Hull/structure. Damage potential according to how puny or massive it is
built. Partial failure not necessarily fatal, ie, a big battlewagon can
continue with pieces gouged out of it!
Reactor/Power generation. This will be the best protected area of the ship
bar none! A decent hit here will mean "Game over" for you, and possibly
anyone else in the adjoining area. Do the words "Warp coil breach" strike
terror into your heart?! The reactor/power system would take the place of
the ammunition storage/magazine in olde Earth naval battles for its
decisively catastrophic effect.
Engines. Most people will have more than one of these. Hits in this area
would result in loss of manouverability, ability to speed away from trouble
Weapons. Mostly mounted on the hull, so fairly easy to kill or disable. Then
again, a warship of any size will have a fair number of these in different
Scanners. Difficult to get complete loss of these. Scanners are multi EM-
spectrum, passive and active, and physically spread over a wide area. They
could be temporarily disabled by jamming/countermeasures or EMP effects of
Systems, can be subdivided into various categories relating to everything
else such as automated control of defences etc. You are likely to get
specific failures fairly early on. But then again there should be carefully
duplicated back-ups in place. Of course, you could make a window of
vunerability out of the slowness of these to kick in!?
Life Support. Loss of this would be a lesser factor in the game. There would
be a large amount of back-up and local emergency provision built in, which
would tide over a situation for several hours at least.
Freak hits. These don't tend to happen in computer games, but do in real
life. Here's a famous WWII example. A small air-dropped lightweight torpedo,
delivered by an obsolete biplane, happened to hit the battleship 'Bismarck'
in just the right place, disabling the rudders, and effectively dooming the
ship from there. Of course, earlier in that battle, Bismarck had the luck go
in their favour when a single hit on her opponent, HMS Hood ignited the
cordite storage, blowing the ship up completely. Then there is the human
error factor, as a simple accident could cause the loss of the whole ship.
The example here,is the Russian submarine 'Kursk', where the proximate cause
of the accident, was a mishandled torpedo (which had a hidden design defect
allowing it to produce very large amounts of inflammable oxygen from its
hydrogen peroxide propellant!) This led to a fire in the torpedo room, and a
much larger explosion shortly after.
Lastly, there is the issue of damage control. How effectively can you
recover from damage substained? I would assume that a small ship would have
limited capacity to do this, and would need to take themselves to the
nearest repair facility, whether that is located in a port, or on a larger
ship? On larger ships, there would be some local self-repair available. It
would be possible to more or less fully restore damaged systems and scanners
for example, keep life support going. Limited self-repair would be possible
to weapons, hull, and power/engines.
These come in two distinct categories or classes. 1. Kinetic or projectile
based systems, including missiles, shells, solid and explosive-tipped shot
etc, or 2. Directed energy based, lasers, fancy particles concentrated into
a narrow beam, directed plasma etc.
For our part, we are looking at weapons from both classes. Most commonly,
lasers and missiles are used as weapons of choice in Elite classic, and
Frontier. Frontier also mentioned the option of a plasma cannon for larger
ship sizes, which could disable or destroy an opponent with a single hit.
We can also widen the choices a bit from that.
Lasers, are almost universal. They are used to fit on all sizes of craft,
they have a great variation in size and firepower, choice of rapid pulse or
continuous beam etc. Multiple installations are possible, even on smaller
ships. These would be the prime weapon of fighters, Cobra style ships, and
probably destroyers too. Lasers have a useful rapid fire rate, can keep
going as long as there is an energy source on the ship, and have reasonable
range. They can also be prone to overheating, and can be considered as
bullet-like, in that the area of damage per hit is generally small, and you
would need to hit vital areas of your opponent to put them out of action.
Lasers can also be negated by 'force fields' or 'shields' At least whilst
those are able to keep functioning under a heavy power drain!? The effective
range, where it can do substantial damage, could be limited too?
Directed plasma. The favoured choice of the heavy mob! These will be found
almost exclusively on larger ships, dreadnoughts and similar. These have
great firepower, able to destroy small ships completely with one hit,
disable medium sized targets, and significantly damage an equal opponent at
optimum range. The effect of plasma can be reduced to some extent by decent
shielding, and there should be a 'tailing off' effect where it diminishes at
longer range. Also, the rate of fire would be somewhat slower than for
lasers, with one shot per mounting possible only every several seconds.
Fancy pseudo-physics type stuff. Try something different for a wildcard
weapon. Gravitational beams that create a mini black-hole effect and suck in
and implode their targets, for example.
Railgun, magnetically boosted solid shell. Can be fitted as complementary
to, or replacing plasma guns on bigger warships. These are closest to
present day shipboard weapons. Current research is going on into this to
supplement/replace traditional cordite-powered naval artillery in US and UK
in future warship designs, probably others too. A railgun offers several
advantages, it could be capable of a rapid rate of fire compared with
plasma. The range could be made to be a lot greater, and you have a choice
of projectiles, solid for direct hull penetration, or proximity-fused
explosive, up to and possibly including nuclear?
Railguns would be a weapon of choice for planetary bombardment. The effects
of laser and plasma tend to diminish if the planet has a half-decent
atmosphere, it is a great natural shield. Railgun based systems, could also
be fixed in forward facing positions, I am thinking destroyer type ships,
and would be single shot, or limited duration. I've got a feeling that
shielding, force-fields would do less well against this type of system.
Disadvantages are that even the fastest railgun is slow, compared with the
speed of light. If engaging at extreme range, with adequate early warning,
it is possible to get out of the way! Also railguns will have a finite
magazine capacity, and could run out of shells.
Missiles. Most commonly encountered as small but useful 'lock-on then fire
and forget' type on Cobra mk3. They could originally destroy an equal sized
opponent, and severely degrade a (slightly) larger one. Missiles could be
negated by Electronic countermeasures (ECM), but 'military' missiles with
higher spec electronics were resistant to that.
Missiles would be very flexible, with even fighters being able to carry
some, as their main limited-shot number firepower multiplier. Cobra type
ships use these in the same manner as for elite/frontier. Destroyers may
well use these, probably in a scaled-up size capable of harming a larger
ship than them.
Missiles could be able to stop and start their engines in flight, turn into
mines if programmed to do so, lurk waiting for a target for weeks, spring
back to life when one comes within range!
Missiles would be slowest system of all, it was possible to shoot down a
missile in classic Elite if you held your nerve. Also it was possible to
outrun them. They would have to deal with ECM, sometimes causing classic
explosive failure, or possibly making a missile go off course and lock onto
something else instead?! I would also give larger ships CIWS (Close in
weapons system) such as an automatically cued very rapid fire light calibre
laser to stop these. CIWS also has a useful secondary role against fighter
attack in general.
Missiles are traditionally explosive filled but non-nuclear, unless you feel
like being a right bastard!!
Electronic countermeasures. These were high-energy consumption, short
duration systems in Elite, but generally prettty dependable for getting
those nasty missiles off your back. You can have provision for this. There
may also be scope for a jamming system targeted at a specific enemy ship,
that stops it aiming or cueing any of its weapons, or severely degrading the
ability of their scanners to 'see'. They could do something like that to you
too. The effect could only be short term if they/you are able to switch to
using different frequencies for radar, or different parts of ER spectrum for
passive detection. Alternatively, you could have some of your fighters and
small craft equipped with specialist payloads to fight the electronic
battle. (Wild Weasel Cobra anyone??)
Electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) effects. I think the 'smart bomb' in Elite
started as an EMP bomb! This would be a nuclear class weapon, with the
ability to damage or degrade shipboard systems as a whole, applied over
quite a wide area. Major care would be needed, as it would affect all within
a certain range. The blast radius could start at 1. Physical destruction (if
a nuke,) going out to 2. Permanent and severe damage to electronic
circuitry. At a greater range 3. the effects would be less severe, probably
temporary. In the cases of 2 and 3, electromagnetic shielding would be
helpful in alleviating the worst effects of this.
Mission statement. If you are playing as an imperial or federation sized
power, your job would be to protect freedom of movement within and between
the systems under your control, against creeping lawlessness or an organised
hostile attack. In a full hot wartime situation, this would expand to
include attempting to deny the enemy *their* freedom of movement.
If you are a trader, it is very simple, you try to survive and prosper. A
more detailed assessment of the scope of what is possible will follow for
If you are a pirate, you would tend to look for easy pickings, plunder to
the limits of your ability, and try to upgrade that ability. You would tend
to avoid direct confrontation with superior forces, unless you have a death
wish. Eventually, it might be possible to build up a pirate fleet.Even later
on, you could seize your own inhabitable planets, make your position
unassailable, sort of a proto-empire. I think this would be very rare, as
pirates normally do not have the grand vision, or the life expectancy, to
make this happen.
A terrorist would be looking to attack very soft and specific targets, where
the 'point' being made would be far greater than the force used. Then you
would have to avoid the subsequent massive manhunt if you are successful.
Why and where battles happen. Battles of any sort, from the first spear-
chucking episodes, through to the future times we are considering don't just
happen in any old random spot. There is often some kind of passage being
disputed, whether it is a road or trade route. A battle happens where the
two armies/fleets meet on that route. Additionally, you could be
defending/attacking a major target at the end of the road. This rule will
hold good for our future warriors too. The vast majority of kick-ups will
take place within a solar system, and most likely where there is a valuable
planet, or the nearest jumping-off point to this. Unless something very
weird happens, no hostile acts would take place in the vast trackless
wasteland that is insterstellar deep space..
Another catalyst for conflict is convoying. Escorting a group of vunerable
cargo-carriers through a disputed or pirate-infested region of space. This
gives opportunities for running mixed ship types, merchantile and military
together. It would also test the game A.I. whether the convoy keeps
together, or scatters under a heavy attack. And it would also test the
abilities of the escort commander to organise the different types of ships
at his disposal, to counter a variable but constant threat level.
Alternatively, you could be a commerce raider attacking such a large
formation on the other side.
In all battle scenarios involving membership of a larger organisation, you
could play, according to your experience level, starting as a junior
commander in a fighter working as part of the formation, graduating through
stages to being the supreme commander making broad-brushstroke decisions
that your A.I. controlled ships then carry out.
How big can they get? Space battles can be any size from a couple, to a
couple of hundred. In technical terms, a 16mhz Falcon could cope with
Frontier and a skirmish of 3-4 ships without breaking sweat. I managed to
play a saved-game with a *huge* number of solid 3-D bad guys, maybe ten or
more fighting against me, and the frame rate chugged a bit. Life would get
easier with a CT2 class system, and an '060, with the massively enhanced
maths co-pro would cope quite well. It might be interesting to note that a
reasonable depiction of huge space battles was possible on a bog-standard
ST, if you remember the sprawling 3-D game 'Epic'. This managed to squeeze
some decent set-piece attacks out of what would be more limited hardware.
Most conflict would stop short of an all-out war or fleet action, but it
would be nice to make sure that the target hardware is up to it, if you
wished to go down that road!
Deployment of different ship types. We've already gone over this to some
extent, in discussing ship types. Nevertheless..
1. Fighters, use as offensive expendable speartip, more expendable if
unmanned, or outer defensive shield in static or slow-moving situation.
2. Cobra mk3's, jack of all trades ship, from routine patrolling, or mix
with fighters to act as bombers, or close convoy escort where destroyers are
lacking or deemed too valuable to utilise.
3. Destroyers, are fast escorts for more valuable dreadnoughts and carriers,
would be used as a pawn sacrifice for these in extremis. Alternatively as
fast and nimble heavy offensive ships (with light protection, so if hit,
relatively easy to stop.)
4. Dreadnoughts, line of battle, convoy escort backstop, with large amounts
of firepower, heavy artillery to use against planetary or static targets, or
ship to ship classic naval battle against equal opponents.
5. Carriers, would need to be protected by others. Launch pad and control
centre for fighters, possibly Cobra-class ships too?
Ideas from other computer games that might provide hints and inspiration.. A
shedload of PeeCee games, starting with Wing Commander. This isn't my area
of expertise at all.. A lot of them owe some kind of heritage to Elite and
'Epic' vast space battles with decent looking solid 3D on an ST(!) The more
I look at this game, the more respect I have for it.
Carrier Command, has never really been imitated, let alone surpassed on
Atari platform. (I'd be interested to hear if anyone redid the concept in a
more contemporary form?) It had a neat point and click 'go there' system of
getting forces to the target. The only slight drawback is the fact that they
had no ability to attack the targets themselves, but loitered in the area
until you took control yourself, or let them run out of fuel.
'Lasers and Men'. Not a space game, but interesting in how it placed you as
one of a larger A.I. controlled team
'Cannon Fodder' again, not for purist space fans, but you have the chance to
adapt their A.I. where your movements control a group which 'swarms' closely
together, and attacks as a unified team. Could be applied to fighters and
smaller craft especially.
Next episode, Trading and society!
CiH, for Alive mag,April '04